When most people think about incense, they think of the sticks that you light and then blow out, leaving the end to smolder and produce sweet-smelling smoke. Yet incense that comes in powders or pellets and is burned on charcoal probably represents the bulk of the incense burned in the world.
Incense was originally burned to please or propitiate the gods; special woods, herbs or resins would be tossed onto a burning brazier or bonfire, perhaps with some words of invocation, and the dramatic plume of smoke that would result would carry the worshipper’s greetings or appeal directly to the deity. The more fragrant the smoke, the more pleasing to the gods; the frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi were considered a princely gift, since they were burned in this way, and were very costly.
Non-igniting incense is the easiest to make, of course. Some are as simple to ‘make’ as obtaining the ingredients. Resins (dried or petrified tree saps) are considered incense all by themselves; these include frankincense, myrrh, copal, and even amber. Yes, the same amber that is used to make jewelry can be burned and produces a very lovely (and very expensive) aroma. Many herbs can be burned alone to make incense – sage, cedar and sweetgrass are widely used in Native American ceremonies. Lavender, rose, rosemary and other flowers and herbs have all been used as incense. Woods such as sandalwood and cedarwood are also burned for their aroma; these woods are considered effective spiritual purifiers.
Most incenses are a compound of two or more ingredients. To create your own recipes is a wonderful exercise in experimentation. You will need a charcoal incense burner, also called a ‘censer’, charcoal tablets specifically formed for incense (that is, not briquettes for your grill) and as wide a variety of resins, herbs, and woods as you wish. Different parts of the same plant may smell differently when burned; cedar tips (the green ends of the stems) and cedar chips, such as are used for small animal bedding, are one example. The tips smell much more like pine, while the chips have a ‘woodier’ aroma.
Charcoal for burning incense can be purchased at any New Age or metaphysical store, church supply store, or online. The tablets are round rather than square, and have a cup-shaped indentation on one side. Light the tablet at a candle; the tablet is impregnated with saltpeter and should start crackling, with little sparks racing across the surface. I suggest holding the tablet on a fork or in a tongs, since once the crackling starts, it moves fast and you can burn your fingers. Put the tablet in the censer and allow it to finish sparkling. When the surface is lightly covered with gray, it is burning evenly and you can begin placing ingredients into the depression on the surface and testing the aroma.
Resins will melt while burning; if you put too much resin on the charcoal, you can actually smother it. Try a small piece, the size of a pea or smaller. Waft the smoke towards you and inhale. Make a list of the aromas you like, with some descriptions, like ‘very sweet’, or ‘grows bitter as it burns’, etc. When the smoke from one ingredient ceases, add another ingredient. Work your way through your entire inventory of ingredients before trying combinations. Does lavender go well with copal? Rosemary with myrrh?
Once you have developed some pairs you like, you can ‘tweak’ the recipe by adding a touch of this or that herb, wood or resin. You should be writing down your ingredients and approximate proportions as you proceed; there’s nothing worse than chancing upon the perfect combination of scents and not being able to reproduce it because you were not keeping track of your ingredients.
Once you have developed your recipe, you can compound it in larger quantities just by increasing the amounts while maintaining the proportions. That is, if one pea-sized lump of copal and a quarter teaspoon of lavender is your favored blend, a larger quantity can be made by adding four pea-sized lumps copal per teaspoon lavender. You may wish to grind the ingredients to blend them more accurately; use a mortar and pestle for this, or try a small coffee grinder. (Buy one specifically for this purpose at a thrift shop, since you won’t want to use it again for coffee after all the sticky resins have been through it.) Grind all the ingredients as fine as you like, then combine and store in a jar with a tight lid until needed.
If you would like to add a scent to your mix that you can’t find in herb form, you can try adding a few drops of the essential oil. Make sure you’re using pure essential oil, not artificial fragrance oil. Essential oil is made from the plant, and fragrance oil could be made in a laboratory out of petroleum or who-knows-what, which will not smell at all attractive when burned.
Some suggestions for ingredients:
RESINS: Frankincense, myrrh, copal, benzoin, dragon’s blood (from sap of the herb by the same name)
WOODS: Sandalwood (available as a powder), cedar, pine
HERBS: Sage, thyme, rosemary, lavender, sweetgrass, rose
CONES AND STICKS:
You can, once you develop a formula you like, make cone and stick incense, but be warned – it’s an involved, messy process.
First you will need to make up a quantity of the incense you like, as outlined above. Then it must be finely ground, to a powder, like flour. This is very hard to do with many ingredients, without industrial equipment, but you may be lucky and your formula grinds easily to a powder in a coffee grinder.
You will need to purchase some potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, available through fireworks supply stores – this is to make the mixture burn – and some gum tragacanth to make the binder. Tragacanth is an ingredient in many foods; it is a thickener.
Mix a teaspoon of tragacanth into a cup of warm water. Stir until it all dissolves. Let this set for a while – the tragacanth will absorb the water and become a gluey paste. While the paste is ‘gelling’, go on with the rest of the process.
Mix together your incense compound, and three to four times as much burnable material, such as ground charcoal. If your incense contains woods, such as sandalwood, this can count toward the amount of burnable material you will need. Proportions are going to be variable here and depend on your individual incense recipe, so you will have to experiment to discover which ones burn easiest and which go out all the time. Start with very small batches until you’re confident that you have the right mix.
If using charcoal in the mix, do -not- use the self-igniting kind. You will be adding saltpeter, which is self-igniting, and you won’t know how much to add if the charcoal already contains some. Do not mess around with this; it can be dangerous.
Now that you have your incense and your burning material mixed, you must weigh it on an accurate scale, such as a food or postage scale. Then add an amount of saltpeter equal to one tenth of the mix by weight. Blend this into the incense mix thoroughly; you don’t want part of the mix to burn faster than other parts.
Now you’re ready to add the tragacanth or binder, to form a paste or dough. If you’re making cone incense, you will want to create a thick cookie-dough consistency by adding the binder to the incense/charcoal-wood blend. If the binder has gotten too stiff to work with, just add water and stir thoroughly. Then add a little at a time until you have achieved the consistency that seems to mold well. Remember, once you’ve added the binder you can’t take it back out again, so add in small increments. Once you’re gotten the right feel to the blend, shape into small cones, as if you were playing with modeling clay. Then set each cone firmly, point up, on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Pressing firmly will flatten the cone’s bottom, so it will stand up when burning. Now you can just let the cones air-dry until they are completely dry and hard – this can take several days. Setting them outside on a hot sunny day will expedite this process.
Making stick incense is a process really better left to the manufacturers, but if you are determined to try, you would make the blend as above, with the variation that the binder should be a lot more watery. Then your blend of incense/charcoal/saltpeter/binder is a runny gruel, into which you dip the sticks. You will need to dip several times to get a sufficient coating on the stick for it to burn properly. The very thin bamboo sticks that commercial incense is dipped from are hard, if not impossible, to find for purchase. Try shish-kabob skewers, or broomstraws. Once you have dipped several times, you can stand them upright in a pot of sand or hard-packed soil and allow them to dry.
Making your own incense is very empowering, and it’s a lot of fun, too. Bring an experimental attitude to the process and you can create your own recipes that smell delightful every time.Making your own incense